As our captors lead us from the middle of the depression I studied them closely. The Snow Demons were material for our worst nightmares. Few have faced them and escaped unscathed, none who were captured were seen again. The tales and legends where horrific.
The truth was far from the myth. To all appearances the Snow Demon were normal people, just plain folk. They did have unusually pale skin and blue eyes. But those blue eyes showed all of the emotions that any other human would have.
We reached a higher ridge. Looking to the west, across a low valley, I could make out the ridge we had followed all day before being captured by Silriend’s band of wee-folk. There seemed to be a sudden drop and half I remembered seeing the jagged cliffs on this side. Our tunnel underground must have brought us by the cliffs. Looking to the east was another valley. I could make out a village near a river. There were other smaller villages scattered around. The valley was growing dark as the sun set behind the ridge we were on.
Where these villages all there was to the mighty fortress?
We were led down a path to the larger village. In the middle was a stone building, the smaller of the two not made of wood. A heavy oak door was opened and we were asked, through gestures, to enter. The room was pitch dark, a state not helped when the door was closed.
“Who is that? Who’s there?”
The voice was familiar.
“Prince Branfel? Is that you?” Merla asked.
“The same,” the voice answered. “Now who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m Merla and this is Lorunce. We’re here to rescue you. What does it look like we want?”
The prince laughed, but it was uneasy.
I was about to say something when the door opened. Four Demons came in, each carrying a torch. They were followed by two others carrying trays of food. Four more torch bearers then entered, making our small prison glow red.
A man then filled the doorway. The demons backed up in fright and huddled together.
“So, a little rescue party for your prince, huh?” the man said, entering the room. He stopped right in front of me, but looked over to Merla and the prince, who were in the back corner.
“What do you think, Zurlfed?” Merla asked.
Zurlfed laughed. “You have actually made my job much easier. You!” He pointed at Prince Branfel. “Do you want to tell me where it is and how you think you were ever going to get it?”
“I would die first,” the prince said. He sounded bold, but he was backed into a corner, shivering.
“Now why would we kill you and lose the secret? No, that’s not what I had in mind,” Zurlfed said. “Would you let this dunderhead die first?” He smacked my head. The prince just stared, stony faced. My guess is that I was less than horse manure to him. “Or how about if we torture this young woman in the most brutal fashion before your eyes? Rip her flesh off while she’s still alive? Do cruel and and crude things while you watch? Would you let her die a slow and painful death while you watched?”
The prince did nothing more than continue to cower, but I punched Zurlfed. Hard. Two Snow Demons restrained me with firm hands, though they were careful not to hurt. I thought I saw the others snicker.
Zurlfed stood up and turned to me. Before he could speak I said, “You better do it in that order, kill me first before you touch a hair on her head, or…”
“Or what?” Zurlfed asked. He laughed. “Perhaps I will make you watch too, as punishment for that hit, Lorunce the dunce.”
“At least I know how to rhyme, Zurlfed the squirrel head. Yes it’s me, Lorunce the one who will pounce.”
This time I knew I saw some of the Snow Demons snicker.
“Lorunce.” I looked over at Merla. She shook her head once.
I glanced over at Prince Branfel, who was still huddled against the back wall, shivering. He seemed to have no idea of what was happening.
“Sticks and stones,” Zurlfed said. He half shrugged, one hand palm up in an “oh well,” gesture. “Yes, sticks and stones. I will make a pyre and burn you alive while my minions throw stones at you. Yes, that sounds good. Your death is certain. The prince, of course, can save the girl. I see how they are looking at each other. I doubt if he will let her die. Good. You, Lorounce, will die at dawn. I will burn you at stake, on my lawn. There, beat that one!”
He spun on his toe before I could answer and left. Two of the demons put torches in holders on the walls and then they all left. The two restraining me patted my back when they let go and made murmurings that sounded like “sorry”. They all looked really sad.
The next hour was pure torture. I couldn’t think of a single thing that Zurlfed could have done that would have been worse.
“Ah, my dear girl, was it Martha?,” the prince said. Merla corrected him. “Whatever. I always said you were pretty, though of course only when no one could hear. Ah, the fresh innocent beauty of a peasant girl! Please know how much it will hurt me to watch you die. But if we escape, I swear on my father’s beard that we will always be together! Wild horses couldn’t separate us! No you will be number one. Yes. I will make sure you are my number one mistress, very well hidden from whoever father chooses as my wife.”
“Oh, you big handsome hunk of royal flesh,” Merla said. “That sounds very exciting. How brave you are! I’m sure you know that I am sacrificing my puny life so your radiance might see the light of day.”
Yuck! What garbage! But then, I am sure he thought I couldn’t hear, since they were whispering. Did he not know of my talents? I knew the answer. In his mind, there were few beyond Prince Branfel who had any talent.
The torches sputtered and went out. The prince whispered even quieter, “At last, he can’t see. I decided that that you must have a last night of pleasure before you die your extended, painful, gory death. I’ll gift you the greatest thing any woman could ever dream of. Me!”
“I’m sorry prince, but not now. Uhm. Maybe in a couple of hours. I may call out and we want to be sure everyone is asleep, right?”
“Why should I care if anyone can hear?” I could hear rustling as he started to disrobe.
“Just wait. You’ll be glad you did.” The rustling stopped.
As she was speaking I began to smell something. I tiptoed to the door and pressed my ear against it.
“He’ll be dead in the morning, and I just wanted to show my appreciation for his wit.” The words were difficult to make out, the accent thick through the heavy door. “Come in with me and have some. They’re good!”
I sniffed again. There was more there than the sweets.
I heard rustling and backed up.
The door opened and the guard entered with a new torch. One of the demons that had carried food in before, a woman, was back and had a tray of cookies. She put it down in the middle of the room on the empty dishes. and turned to the guard.
“Here, I’ll take the torch for a minute. Eat a cookie.”
The guard took one.
The prince walked over and was about to grab one, but I smacked his arm down.
“I’m sorry, your greatness,” I said, “but I want us to be polite and wait for our hostess to invite us to eat. If she doesn’t, don’t touch a single cookie.”
From Merla’s expression I knew that she understood what I was saying, but the prince was obviously fuming. He reached for another cookie, but this time Merla struck his arm. Hard.
“Ouch! Now why did you go and do that?” Tears began to pour out of the prince’s eyes. “Peasant.”
The woman demon watched the guard closely and gave him another cookie as soon as he finished the first. The prince began to reach again, but Merla looked at him with an expression that would stop a tiger. He dropped his hand. The guard grabbed two more and ate them in as many bites.
“That was great,” the guard said. “We have to go now, though.” He grabbed the torch.
The woman picked up the tray of cookies and followed the guard outside. She didn’t shut the door after herself and the guard didn’t seem to notice.
“What…” the prince started, but both Merla and I hushed him. I tiptoed to the door again and watched. It took longer than I expected, but the guard finally sat down and leaned against the wall. A few minutes later he was softly snoring.
I motioned Merla forward. She gave the prince a stern look, took his arm and led him out.
It had become very foggy. After a few steps I couldn’t see the buildings around me. I was totally lost. But then I felt a tiny hand take mine. The unseen owner of the hand walked confidently and I followed. I could hear Merla close behind me. I guessed she could see me with her sharp eyes, but when I glanced back the fog was so thick I couldn’t see her. I could hear, though. She was dragging the prince, hitting him every time he made a sound.
We walked blind for what seemed an eternity. I noticed that we had started to climb after only a little while and that most of the walk was up hill.
We at last broke out of the fog. Silriend dropped my hand and motioned for us to follow. It was still dark so I couldn’t see very much as we continued up. It wasn’t much farther when we turned reached the top. We stopped and turned around. The sun was rising over a sea of clouds. The valley was obviously still socked in.
We went down into the little depression over to the outcropping we had used to enter.
“OK,” Silriend said. “Into the Giant’s Toilet.”
“See, I told you,” I said to Merla.
She shushed me, but I could see the smile in her eyes.
The prince just looked completely baffled by it all. I was beginning to feel sorry for him.
“Well, when are one of you peasants going to stoop down so I can use your back to climb up to that vulgar entrance?”
I stopped feeling sorry for him.
Soon we were all back inside the tunnel. I was about to ask which direction we were to follow when I saw the butterfly. Our path was clear.
— — —